Friday, June 26, 2009
Recycling as endgame
If you take half a dozen MMORPGs at random and look at their gameplay, you'll probably find that most of them share an almost identical gameplay from level 1 to whatever the level cap is. Sure, there are variations, but basically the majority of MMORPGs have you doing quests and killing monsters for experience points, levels, gear, and improved stats, one way or another. But once you reach the level cap, the differences begin to become larger. Some games have not much of an endgame at all, other have mainly a raiding endgame, some have a PvP endgame, and there are a few games where the endgame is more political, with player-run cities for example. Not only is there a huge variation in different types of endgames, but generally all of them have important problems, and are usually the source of the bulk of player's complaints about games.
To some extent an endgame is always a crutch. In any other game you'd stop playing after reaching the end, get a game over screen, rolling credits, and maybe a computer singing to you. In a MMORPG the game company doesn't want you to stop playing, because you still give them money as long as you play, so they offer you an endgame instead of a game over screen. But is that the only way?
Take for example World of Warcraft. The raiding endgame in World of Warcraft has two major problems: It is a very different game from the leveling game, with very different requirements, thus difficult to balance between those who only play WoW for that higher challenge, and those who don't like the jump in difficulty at the end. And every expansion makes the previous endgame obsolete, including making all the rewards worthless. World of Warcraft adds 10 more levels in every expansion, so the game gets longer and longer. The leveling game suffers from that, because there are often not enough players at a given level and location to do anything actually "multiplayer". And Blizzard is forced to devalue the leveling game as well, speeding it up with every expansions, so the total time from level 1 to the level cap doesn't go up.
Now what if we removed the endgame from a leveling game like World of Warcraft, and replaced it by an incentive to start over? For example the first time you play WoW there could be only a handful of basic classes: Warrior, Priest, Mage, Rogue. Once you reach the level cap, the hybrid classes unlock, but you have to restart playing from level 1. Once you reach the level cap a second time, either with another basic class or a hybrid, hero classes like the Death Knight open up, and so on. The classes that can be unlocked wouldn't be more powerful as the basic classes, but they would be more complex to play, thus adding more challenge to keep people entertained.
As a consequence of a gameplay like that, expansions would not be vertical, adding more levels, but horizontal, adding new classes to unlock, new zones to play through from level 1 to 60. The world would grow with every expansion, but the new content would add to the old content, not make it obsolete. There would be less of a rush to reach the endgame, because there is none, and more players available to play together at every level. Of course such a game design would be controversial, MMO players are an extremely conservative bunch. But if you think of the long term, it is easy to see how a game with horizontal expansions and continuous recycling is more stable than lets say WoW with a level cap of 150.